I was really, really sad when Pope Benedict stepped down. He was my pope in the way that so many people thought of J.P. II as theirs. My reversion to Catholicism mostly happened on his watch, and the things he did during that time (Summorum Pontificum, for instance) were changes that I attentively followed and heartily celebrated. The whole idea of suddenly having a new pope was very emotionally confusing. How would I bond with another the way that I had with my Papa Bene? When I first met Pope Francis via a streaming video feed one year ago today, all I could see was the foreignness of him, plus a bit of the demure sweetness. Did you see this meme?
Yes, he is different from the other two. But in the twelve months since then, I’ve found something about him that is very familiar indeed. He reminds me of a priest, now a canonized saint, who — like Pope Benedict — has played a crucial role in my formation over the last decade: St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei.
This image that I found over at the National Catholic Register captures their shared spirit perfectly: the twinkling eye, the slight smile, the emphatic gesture, and the words that go straight to the root of the matter: “Do we want to become holy? Yes or no?” At the onset of my reversion, I learned from St. Thérèse of Lisieux that I could become holy through small acts of self-gift. But I’ve learned from Opus Dei how to become holy as a stay-at-home mom and wife who also has a blog. I have a practical plan for this vision, but I need constant reminders to stay on track. Pope Francis delivers on that front, particularly when I come across soundbites from his audiences. They usually read like something straight out of The Way in their directness.
St. Josemaría had a feisty choleric temperament to which I can relate. Since I tend to think in assertive exclamation points, I find that it’s the best way that I can be reached — shaken loose from my complacency: “Stop making faces and acting like a child” (The Way, #3), or “Don’t be so touchy” (#43), or “Wake up!” (#257), or “Kiss your crucifix!” (#302), or “Why don’t you give yourself to God once and for all, … really, … now!” (#902). This kind of straight talk is just what I need to stay focused on the goal, which is Heaven. Do I want to become holy: yes or no? I must choose now, and I must choose at every moment. Pope Francis reminds me that my thoughts and actions are never neutral. I’m either drawing nearer to God and neighbor or farther away with the thousands of choices that I make each day, beginning with the very first: to wake up happily, ready to serve my God and my family; or to begrudge my alarm and immediately seek the fleeting comfort of a few more minutes of sleep. Pope Francis is an embodiment of what St. Josemaría called the “heroic minute” — that first instant of the day when you jump out of bed instead of snoozing and shout in your heart, “Serviam!” — I will serve. I always take on this (for me, very difficult) mortification every Lent. This year, I’ll be sure to add to it the particular intention of praying for our pope, my Papa Francesco.
Last year, on October 2nd, eighty-five years to the day after St. Josemaría founded Opus Dei, Pope Francis addressed the faithful in St. Peter’s Square and told them, “Do not be afraid of holiness, do not be afraid to aim high, to be loved and purified by God, do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit.” This is the same shocking message that the Church has repeated ever since Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). The Vatican II document, Lumen gentium, made this teaching explicit in chapter five, when it discussed “the universal call to holiness.” This message is so exhilarating that it gives me chills just thinking about it. It’s a challenge to everyone in every season, and Pope Francis reminds me that it includes me right now.
Our new Holy Father has shown us how we walk along this ordinary way of holiness. He shows us with his childlike spirit how we can do little things — small acts of charity and kindness, like giving a sandwich to a tired Swiss Guard — that will slowly but surely transform each of us into a clearer image of our God who is Love. Thank you, Pope Francis, for your beautiful witness to personal sanctity. Viva il Papa!